We like to speak to expert marketers with different backgrounds and clients, because there isn’t just one recipe for success in marketing. The more points of view you hear, the more likely you are to find experiences or recommendations that will strike a chord and prove helpful in the long-term.
Kate Colbert is an accomplished writer and marketer, and Founder of Silver Tree Communications, a strategic business consulting practice in Wisconsin, USA. Kate has spent her career creating brand stories, to launch new products, grow existing brands, and protect companies during crisis.
Ember: Explain briefly how you got into this field. We hear you were once an English professor!
Kate: The term ‘accidental marketer’ used to make me cringe, but, I am an accidental marketer. Sort of. I started my career with the intention to write and to teach others to write … period. I finished my Master of Arts degree in English composition and comparative literature with a starry-eyed plan to become a college English professor … forever and ever, amen. After just a few years of classroom experience in outstanding institutions, I was ready to do more. So, I stopped grading freshman essays and started writing articles and editing columns for a tech industry magazine.
It was work I loved, and it challenged me immensely. Without realizing it, I was also surrounded by the worlds of sales and marketing, working on the other side of the desk, as it were, from other vital communications professionals — the marketing and public relations representatives of top companies in the United States and around the globe. So I absorbed an awful lot from those people. I was surrounded by communications professionals but didn’t see myself as one.
From there, I eventually started freelancing, and founded what was to become my life’s work — a communications consultancy called Silver Tree Communications, LLC. I stopped being a consumer of PR and marketing and began generating it, representing some of the same technology companies that had previously pitched me for stories.
Now, 16 years after its founding, it’s what makes everything — even my new book — possible for me.
Ember: Of course, there’s an obvious connection between English literature and what you do now because essentially you’re a storyteller, aren’t you?
Kate: Yes. Organizations ― primarily higher education, healthcare and professional services organizations ― hire me to help them understand the stories that their brands can truly and ethically own in the marketplace. And once they understand what makes them meaningfully different in the minds of customers and others, I help them share that story in ways that stick.
Ember: We find that some clients struggle to work out what their story is. Some even doubt they even have a story to tell. What advice would you give to those organisations?
Kate: I would offer two pieces of advice to businesses in this regard.
First, ask yourself why you got into this business in the first place – who you wanted to help, and why, and how you would do that. And ask yourself what makes the way YOU provide these services different and valuable ―meaningful ―to the clients you serve. If you can articulate this, then work on refining and clarifying that story in everything you do (on your website, in your initial conversations with your prospective clients, etc.). If you’re not sure what makes you meaningfully different in the eyes of your stakeholders, go find out. Conduct a client survey or some focus groups, and do them in truly scientific ways. A little market research goes a long way.
Secondly, make yourself a rule book ― write up a brand platform of sorts. This doesn’t have to be the polished, perfect, customer-focused language that will go on your website. But draw up a thoughtful internal business document about your story and about the rules for telling it. Do you have a few go-to headlines or phrases that sum up who you are and what you offer? If you had to tell your company’s story in one paragraph, what might it say? What are the descriptions and kinds of words you want people to use about you? Are there words and phrases you will NOT use? Get clear on all of it, because it matters. Are there things about your processes, your services or your personality that might delight or surprise your clients? How do you talk about those things, and do you address those points of difference in the first words you share when you talk about your business?
Ember: You’ve recently published a new book, Think Like a Marketer. What was your motivation in writing it? And who specifically is it aimed at?
Kate: I wrote this book because I knew that a shift in mindset could change everything for someone’s business. I know this because I have seen it, over and over, with my own clients.
I believe that thinking like a marketer is the secret to taking your business from mediocre to being meaningfully different. It’s also the secret to moving your organization from status quo to success story, and from busy to profitable. I wanted to create an easy-to-read, practical guidebook ― for all business leaders ― that offers fresh insights into the actions and attitudes that can accelerate your business success, sharpen your daily work, and balance your efforts to create value for customers while capturing value for the bottom line.
This book is for the business owner without a background in marketing; the business professional in a small- to mid-sized company or a Fortune 1000 company; the professional speaker, blogger or thought leader; the non-profit professional; and, yes, even for the marketer!
Ember: One of the key lessons from your book is that firms should communicate for connection and meaning, not just to win business. Why is that so important?
Kate: If you want your clients to think of you often ― especially in moments when they could expand the scope of their own work with you or when they ought to be thinking to refer others to you ― you need to communicate with them for connection and meaning, not just to transact sales. If they only ever hear from you when you’re sending them something necessary like an annual statement, brochure, or invoice, your relationship with them is merely transactional. And I’d argue that’s not a real relationship at all. If your communications focus almost exclusively on some sort of “buy now” message, your clients eventually will say, “bye, now.”
What’s more, people are smart, and they are holding brands accountable today in ways like never before. Customers will increasingly make you “prove it” when you tell a story and make a brand promise. Savvy consumers (like Gen Z, who are fearless about calling people out) are sick of generic messages. If you’re an accounting firm with the tagline “Where every number counts,” for example, consumers will consider you generic — because any accounting firm could use that tagline. Make your brand promise as specific and meaningful as possible. Be meaningfully different.
Ember: In the book, you also emphasise the value of having a marketing strategy. Perhaps you could expand on that?
Kate: It’s vital to make overarching decisions about how, when and where you will market. Those decisions can drive a strategy, and that strategy can help you make everyday decisions. Imagine, for example, that you’re a financial adviser, and that you have decided to provide very high-touch, special marketing to clients who have invested more than £2,000,000. You will call them more frequently, host special events for them, perhaps, and mail more expensive, special direct mail items to them.
You’ll still communicate with your clients who are at lower investment levels (plenty of email and social media, for example) but the truly time-consuming and expensive marketing tactics will be focused on your high-value clients because your ROI is highest there. This “high-touch for the high rollers and mass media for everyone else” approach is a strategy. If you are clear in your mind on the strategy, you and your team will be better able to evaluate opportunities for marketing tactics ― like whether it makes sense to host a cocktail party at your offices for clients at the holidays, or whether you should produce a monthly e-newsletter or a blog series.
Ember: You make the distinction, though, between strategy and tactics. You need to stick religiously to your strategy, you argue, but your tactics should be far more flexible.
Kate: Exactly. Using the example above, you might challenge yourself to try new tactics for communicating in service of the strategy. Perhaps you’ve never been comfortable with being on camera for video, but you know it could mean a lot to your top clients if you shot a short video of you wishing them a happy holiday and reminding them of 3 tips that might make for a less stressful season for them. Then let go of your fear of the camera, and make the video. Be willing to try new things ― direct mail, streaming radio, paid internet search ― if you believe they might be effective in building your brand and growing your business in profitable ways. Try new things, measure how they are working, and make adjustments along the way. Marketing, even when rooted in a solid strategy, involves a great deal of experimentation and flexibility.
Ember: Other than the ones you’ve already mentioned, what would you say are the biggest marketing mistakes that businesses make?
Kate: From my own experience, they settle for generic messages, and they forget to provide communications and experiences for their clients that create warm, positive emotional responses.
Ember: What’s your view on video content and the value of having it and sharing it?
Kate: Video is an important tool, especially in an era when people are pressed for time and aren’t likely to read long articles. Video is an ideal way to convey your humanity, practical advice, feelings and unique points of view. Luckily, people are comfortable with casual, low-production-value video today, so you don’t need to hire a video team all the time. Hold up your smart phone and hit “record” ― or “go live” on Facebook and start connecting.
Ember: What are the most common mistakes companies make with their video content in particular, in your experience?
Kate: I’ve seen too many videos produced in a very “left-brained” way, and they miss the opportunity to tell stories, to make people smile, to appeal to the viewer’s propensity to be inspired, touched, convinced. Great videos make appropriate use of humor, candor and story.
Ember: Finally, if there’s one piece of advice that you would give to an organisation that has tried some sort of marketing strategy but with limited success, what would it be?
Kate: Quit guessing about how to market, and go to the source of all truth ― your clients. Hire someone who is an expert at revealing customer insights and have them survey, study, interview and/or observe your clients. The best marketing strategies and plans come from the data. The results of your research, if done well and analyzed in a truly intuitive way, will tell you everything you need to know about how to communicate (and market) to your clients and your prospects.
Kate’s new book, Think Like a Marketer, is available now.